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Few fiber artists have mastered the concept of “painting with thread” quite as successfully as Houston-based artist Cindy Hickok, who uses needle, thread, and her sewing machine to create works that are
not only painterly in quality, but sculptural in structure.

From her framed re-interpretations of characters and images from famous paintings to her embroidered three-dimensional objects, Hickok’s work epitomizes the concept of creative embroidery.

And attendees to the debut of Quilt! Knit! Stitch! in Portland (August 14-16) will get the chance to see a number of Hickok’s pieces up close and on display in the special exhibit, “Creative Embroidery: The Works of Cindy Hickok.”

We had the pleasure of speaking with Hickok about her work, her background in the arts, and her rather impressive thread “stash.”

Friends@Festival: First, please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Hickok: Art has been my life, always. I majored in Applied Art—which was art with crafts and home economics as well—at Iowa State University. While there, I had the opportunity of doing a summer apprenticeship in mosaic at Denwar Ceramics in Costa Mesa, California.  It was an experience that would change my life, as I learned to see and think more creatively.

I raised two children before committing myself to my art on a full-time basis.  My husband Doyle and I live in Houston, and we're both doing what we enjoy most: he restores cars while I work at the sewing machine.

Friends@Festival: Going back to your mosaic apprenticeship—what did you gain from that experience that you use in your art today?

Hickok: I learned how to mix color. By placing a blue tile next to a yellow tile, one sees green; by placing a bright orange tile in a sea of blues, one's eye adjusts and accepts a quieter sea of blue.

The same is true in working with thread. I change thread colors constantly, and by placing bobbin threads that differ from the top thread in my sewing machine, I can alter the value of a color immensely. I keep about 150 bobbins wound so that I can adjust colors easily without having to stop and wind a bobbin, which breaks the rhythm of working.

Friends@Festival: At what point did you begin
doing embroidery work, and how has your work evolved over time?

Hickok: In the 1980s, my husband and I spent five years in England, and with a new sewing machine—but no deadlines or social obligations—I was able to experiment and play.

I visited art colleges and learned about disappearing fabrics. I could experiment with my new machine, using various soluble fabrics and combinations of thread. I began by doing miniatures that were viewable both front and back, then gradually moved into larger, framed works.

Friends@Festival: Many of your works could really be described as three-dimensional thread sculptures. Please walk me through the process of creating one of your pieces.

Hickok: A lot of my work is framed, and those pieces are freely stitched on water-soluble fabric, then the background dissolved leaving only the thread. After it dries, I mount the work on an acid-free background and then frame it. One idea always leads to more, so many of my pieces happen in series.

Three-dimensional pieces are a much greater challenge. I first make a pattern, similar to what one would do in making a pattern for constructing a garment. I enlarge the pattern at least 10% to allow for the tension of the thread to pull the piece in smaller, and then I transfer the pattern to a simple cotton fabric such as a woven interfacing. I draw the design in soft pencil, and then place the fabric in a hoop.

Stitching is the greatest joy, and I can lose myself in the process for hours. I watch for color problems, making certain that I have a good contrast in color values. Once the stitching is complete, I construct the piece using simple sewing construction methods.

Friends@Festival: You have a particular fondness for taking characters or images from other well-known artworks and presenting them in a different light. What is it about this idea that appeals to you? And do you have a particular favorite adaptation that you've created?

Hickok: This is where I let my imagination run amok. Just as we all like to think that the dolls in the toy shops come out and dance together at night when the store is closed, I like to think of characters in favorite paintings and how they got there, what their real lives are like, etc. And then I take them out of context and place them in new situations.

My favorite is allowing them to meet their cohorts in the museum cafeteria
for camaraderie and sustenance when the museum is closed to the public.
I prefer to stick to well-known painters, and I watch copyright dates. My
largest piece so far is a ten-piece combination of tables and figures—the entire restaurant, really—that I created for the 14th International Trienniel of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland.

Friends@Festival: Finally, do you have an estimate on the number of spools of thread you have in your "stash?" Where do they all live?

Hickok: Both Madeira and Sulky make around 400 colors in rayon embroidery threads, 40 weight, and I have at least one of each plus others that have crept into my collection from other sources.

This sounds like a lot, but many of those colors are quite close, or even duplicates, and there are others that are not available. I wish there were more reds and oranges, for example.

I keep them all on my wall next to my sewing machine, and this gives me incentive to stitch whenever I enter the room.  I have never noticed any fading, but there might be a certain amount if the threads were kept in direct sunlight.  The presence of color gives me a big lift.

To learn more about Cindy and to see her works in detail, visit her website at www.CindyHickok.com.

Photo cutlines:

Photo 1—Cindy Hickok
Photo 2—A Conversation Piece
Photo 3—I Know What I Like
Photo 4—Bachelor Pad
Photo 5—Laundry Bag
Photo 6—Morning Has Broken
Photo 7—Unruffled
Photo 8—Lunch at the Art Institute
Photo 9—Jawbreakers
Photo 10—A Boston Tea Party
Photo 11—A Boston Tea Party (detail)

Q&A: Cindy Hickok

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